Andrea Riseborough's controversial upset Oscar nomination, explained (updated)

Andrea Riseborough scored an upset Oscar nomination for her star turn in To Leslie. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Andrea Riseborough scored an upset Oscar nomination for her star turn in To Leslie. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Updated Jan. 31, 2023: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors has decided not to rescind Andrea Riseborough's Best Actress nomination for To Leslie amidst concerns that her grassroots campaign violated Oscar guidelines. "The Academy has determined the activity in question does not rise to the level that the film’s nomination should be rescinded," the organization in charge of the annual Academy Awards wrote in a statement provided to Yahoo Entertainment.

At the same time, the board did feel that some of the campaign's "tactics" were cause for concern and would be addressed directly with the "responsible parties." That most likely refers to To Leslie director, Michael Morris, and his wife, actress Mary McCormack, who reportedly spearheaded the effort to get the movie seen and praised by the likes of Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett.

"The purpose of the Academy’s campaign regulations is to ensure a fair and ethical awards process," the AMPAS statement continues. "Given this review, it is apparent that components of the regulations must be clarified to help create a better framework for respectful, inclusive, and unbiased campaigning. These changes will be made after this awards cycle and will be shared with our membership. The Academy strives to create an environment where votes are based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible films and achievements."

Original story continues below:

You might say Andrea Riseborough got by with a little help from her friends. The 41-year-old English actress was the breakout star of this year's Oscar nominations, scoring a seemingly out-of-nowhere nod for her star turn in the barely seen independent drama To Leslie. But behind her surprise nomination was a smartly orchestrated and star-studded word of mouth campaign — boasting the participation of Hollywood royalty like Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet — that defied standard operating awards season procedures like million-dollar billboard buys and "Consider This..." ads.

But according to new reports, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — which oversees the Oscars — is now in the process of investigating Riseborough's grassroots effort to determine whether or not it violated existing rules against lobbying for votes. In a recent edition of his widely read What I'm Hearing newsletter, Puck journalist Matt Belloni outlined emerging concerns within the organization that the campaign may have been illegal. The issue is expected to be raised when AMPAS's board of governors meets on Tuesday, Jan. 31, exactly one week after her nomination was announced.

In a statement Friday, the organization confirms that it will be "conducting a review" of the circumstances that led to Riseborough's nomination.

"It is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the Awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner, and we are committed to ensuring an inclusive awards process," the statement reads. "We are conducting a review of the campaign procedures around this year’s nominees, to ensure that no guidelines were violated, and to inform us whether changes to the guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication. We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures, and support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances."

Watch an exclusive clip from To Leslie below:

On Tuesday, Riseborough — whose past credits alternate major studio movies like Oblivion and Amsterdam alongside smaller cult fare such as Mandy and The Death of Stalin — seemed amazed that her once long-shot nomination became a sure thing. "I’m astounded," the chameleon-like character actor told Deadline in the wake of the Oscar announcements. "It’s such an unexpected ray of light. It was so hard to believe it might ever happen because we really hadn’t been in the running for anything else. Even though we had a lot of support, the idea it might actually happen seemed so far away."

Riseborough's friends and collaborators within the industry were thrilled for her as well. During an interview about his new horror film Infinity Pool, actor Alexander Skarsgård provided Yahoo Entertainment with a real-time reaction to the news. "I just found out — I'm so thrilled," raves The Northman star, adding that it was Riseborough who encouraged him to collaborate with Pool director Brandon Cronenberg after she worked with the filmmaker on his 2020 feature Possessor. "She's amazing in the film, and it's well-deserved."

Movie star sentiments like Skarsgård's can be credited with pushing Riseborough over the top on Oscar morning. But according Belloni's previous reporting, the genesis of her stealth campaign can be traced back to an unexpected source: actress Mary McCormack, the star of movies and TV shows like Private Parts and In Plain Sight, and wife of To Leslie director Michael Morris.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 07: Michael Morris and Andrea Riseborough attend the SAG-AFTRA Foundation
Michael Morris and Riseborough attend the SAG-AFTRA Foundation screening of To Leslie in December. (Photo by Jason Mendez/Getty Images)

In a What I'm Hearing newsletter published prior to the Oscar nominations, Belloni reported that McCormack opened her own Rolodex and personally asked every celebrity she knew to watch and post positive sentiments about Riseborough's performance in the film, which had an ultra-brief theatrical release in the fall and is now available on most VOD services. Belloni had also previously reported that the actress's agents assisted in raising the movie's profile within Hollywood, while Deadline reported that Riseborough used her own money to help the campaign in its nascent stages.

According to Belloni's latest piece, McCormack and Morris's actions will specifically be at the center of AMPAS's internal conversations. In one email sent during the Oscar nominations period that ran from Jan. 12-17, the actress informed recipients: "If you’re willing to post every day between now and Jan 17th, that would be amazing! But anything is helpful, so please do whatever makes you comfortable. And what’s more comfortable than posting about a movie every day!"

As Belloni reports, emails like that will be under close scrutiny as AMPAS reviews whether Riseborough's campaign ran afoul of its stringent anti-lobbying rules. And there's precedent for disqualifying a nominee over those concerns. In 2014, the board of governors voted to rescind a Best Original Song nomination for composer and then-member of the music branch executive committee, Bruce Boughton, after it was discovered that he personally emailed his fellow committee members to draw attention to his song during the nomination voting period.

Riseborough in a scene from To Leslie. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Riseborough in a scene from To Leslie. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Shot in Texas on a shoestring budget during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, To Leslie had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, where it received mostly positive reviews and was acquired for distribution by Momentum Pictures. Written by Ryan Binaco, the movie casts Riseborough as Leslie Rowlands, a West Texas single mother whose life seems set to change for the better when she wins the lottery. But flash-forward a few years and all that money is gone, spent on her serious alcohol and drug habits.

Homeless and shunned by her family — including grown son James (Owen Teague) — Leslie is sleeping outside of a rundown motel when she's discovered by the owner and recovering addict, Sweeney, played by comedian, podcaster and well-known "recovery guy," Marc Maron. Hoping to help a fellow addict, he offers her a job and a place to stay. As she slowly pieces her life back together, Leslie has to reckon with her self-destructive past and plan for a future that's less financially rewarding, but more personally rewarding.

While Riseborough's lived-in performance consistently attracted rave reviews since To Leslie's SXSW premiere, the movie failed to make much of an impact as awards season kicked into gear during the fall. Debuting in only a handful of U.S. and U.K. theaters in October, the movie grossed a mere $28,000 during its brief theatrical life. When Riseborough appeared on Maron's WTF podcast in early January, her co-star bemoaned the way that To Leslie's release had been handled by Momentum.

Riseborough and Marc Maron in a scene from To Leslie. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Riseborough as Leslie and Marc Maron as Sweeney in a scene from To Leslie. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

"The f***king distributor dropped the ball on facilitating something that would bring a lot more attention to the movie," Maron complained. "That happened, and now this movie with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score that everyone should see because of the work you did and the work we all did [is struggling]. It's been hobbled by the people responsible for putting it out there."

Behind the scenes, though, McCormack and Morris's grassroots awards campaign was on the verge of going viral. After Howard Stern talked up the movie on his show over the summer, Charlize Theron became one of the first movie stars to go on the record, hosting a screening in November where she said the film "stays in your mind ... and stays in your skin." One month later, Frances Fisher took to Twitter to publicly throw her support behind Riseborough with a Dec. 30 post that described her performance as "amazing" and "authentic."

According to Belloni, one of Fisher's subsequent Instagram posts encouraged followers to rank Riseborough in the first spot on their ballots, suggesting that it would only take 218 actors to officially put her in contention. That post also directly referred to some of the other competitors in the Best Actress category, including Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh — a possible violation of a rule that prohibits a member from singling out "the competition." The rule also states that: "Academy members who are found to have violated this regulation will be subject to a one-year suspension of membership for first-time violations, and expulsion for any subsequent violations."

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That initial trickle of online activity became a flood as the Oscar nomination period approached on Jan. 12. Stars like Edward Norton, Paltrow and Jane Fonda posted rave reviews of Riseborough on social media, while more internet-adverse celebrities like Demi Moore and Winslet talked up her work at special screenings and other events. On Jan. 14, the Titanic star moderated a virtual Q&A with Riseborough and Morris where she described the actress's work as: "The greatest female performance on-screen I have ever seen in my life."

The campaign literally hit primetime when Blanchett praised Riseborough from the stage while accepting her Best Actress prize for Tár at the Critics Choice Awards on Jan. 15. (Riseborough didn't make the cut for Critics Choice or Golden Globes consideration, but she was nominated for both a Gotham Award and an Independent Spirit Award.) "It is extremely arbitrary considering how many extraordinary performances there have been by women [this year], not only in this room, but also Andrea Riseborough and Tang Wei and Penélope Cruz. The list goes on and on and on."

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The fact that Riseborough is now officially on the list of Best Actress nominees could herald the beginning of a new era for future Oscar hopefuls, one where personal industry connections can help smaller movies overcome big-budget productions that have prominent media campaigns. "You always think, 'If we’ve done a good enough job it will break through the noise,'" Riseborough remarked to Deadline. "But often it’s just impossible to compete with millions of dollars of advertising. It has been special to feel so supported by the community — especially by actors — and to feel like the work has broken through that. It’s really not something I’ve ever experienced before."

But her success also hasn't come without some controversy. Many online have already noted that Riseborough's nomination may have come at the expense of Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler, who were widely expected to be nominated for The Woman King and Till, respectively. It also hasn't gone unnoticed that many of Riseborough's most prominent backers are white, and that Black performers were ultimately shut out of the Best Actress category, resurfacing memories of previous #OscarsSoWhite social media campaigns.

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Win or lose on Oscar night, Riseborough is choosing to focus on the wider exposure that her nomination means for To Leslie. "The response we’ve had all along has been so personal from people," she told Deadline. "It felt like there was a scope for it to touch so many people. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to do, to keep talking about it even if people weren’t very interested in it because as soon as they watched the film, they became instantly interested and couldn’t shake off the story. The film really drove itself in that way."

[Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on Tuesday, Jan. 24. It has been updated to reflect recent events.]

To Leslie is currently available to rent or purchase on VOD services, including Prime Video and Vudu.